Coloring the terms of membership

Joe Soss, Sanford F. Schram

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


Most studies of racial and ethnic inequalities focus on how discrete, measurable things get allocated across groups. "Who benefits," researchers ask as they examine the allocation of goods, "and why do some get more than others?" Such questions rightly lie at the heart of our collective effort to understand how inequalities persist and change. Yet they are not the whole of it. Disparities exist, not only in who gets more or less, but also in how social groups are positioned in relation to one another and major societal institutions (Tilly 1998). In this chapter, we explore racial and ethnic disparities associated with recent changes in U.S. policies toward low-income populations. We focus primarily on welfare policy and, secondarily, on criminal justice. Likewise, our analysis centers on African Americans, though we consider the positioning of other groups intermittently. Our chapter is not a study of distributive disparities; it does not focus on who gets more or less and why. Rather, it is a study of civic disparities: it asks how recent policy changes position different groups vis-à-vis major institutions of the state, market, and civil society. Civic and distributive disparities are, of course, related. We focus on the terms of a group's societal inclusion partly because they are significant in their own right and because we assume that outcomes of the "who gets what, when, how" variety depend, at least partly, on how groups are positioned in relation to societal institutions. In this respect, our analysis builds on a long intellectual tradition of conceptualizing civic and distributive disparities as two sides of a single transaction. This is the tradition of Jane Addams (1902), who viewed poverty as a combination of economic deprivation and social marginality, and who linked both to processes of assimilation in which denigrated "others" were told to act "more like us." It is also the tradition of scholars who have argued that poverty and inequality cannot be decoupled from the social question of solidarity (Heclo 1995), conceptions of social citizenship (Marshall 1949/1964), and processes of civic incorporation into so- cietal institutions (Lieberman 2005). This tradition invites us to rethink the theme of this volume, racial and ethnic disparities, in terms of societal membership. Specifically, we ask: in the United States today, how do welfare and criminal justice policies organize governance and establish terms of membership in distinctive ways for different racial and ethnic groups? Gosta Esping-Andersen (1990, 23) once observed that "the welfare state is. . . in its own right, a system of stratification." Its policies can classify and locate social groups in ways that disrupt or consolidate preexisting patterns of disparity. In what follows, we suggest that contemporary U.S. policies intersect with race in ways that promote uneven patterns of civic incorporation. To be sure, race is less decisive for civic incorporation today than it was in Jane Addams's time. Nevertheless, race continues to influence the kinds of societal institutions that individuals encounter and the kinds of institutional positions they occupy (King and Smith 2005; Brown et al. 2003). This interplay of race and policy has profound implications for the future of citizenship and democracy in the United States, and it deserves a central place in the study of how goods, risks, and opportunities are distributed across social groups in America. In addition to raising enduring questions of membership, the theme of this chapter is also a timely one. In recent years, arguments over societal inclusion have risen to the forefront of welfare state politics. Across Europe, debates over civic inclusion have gathered momentum as governments have struggled to cope with immigration, economic integration, changing domestic populations, and the shifting relationship between economic disadvantage and social marginality (Blank 2003). The language of social exclusion now routinely frames European discussions of unemployment and welfare (Silver 1994). Labor activation policies are cast as ways to bring marginal groups into the societal mainstream, primarily by assimilating the long-term unemployed into the consistently working labor force (Handler 2004). In the United States, the politics of welfare reform has followed its own politics of inclusion grounded in the new paternalism (Mead 1997, 2-3), a directive and supervisory approach to the poor that emphasizes the need to enforce civic obligations and present an appropriate "operational definition of citizenship" (Mead 1986, 7). Because the poor have failed to work and form families in the manner expected by "the societal mainstream," paternalists argue, effective civic incorporation requires new disciplinary policies that "tell the poor what to do" (Mead 1998). It is only by meeting the threshold requirements of full and equal membership- the civic minimum (White 2003)-that the poor can be incorporated as first-class citizens who deserve the rights, benefits, and privileges associated with that status. When federal lawmakers passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), they sought to restate the rights and obligations of societal membership. PRWORA explicitly stated that citizens are not entitled to public aid and that work and marriage should be promoted as the "foundation of a successful society" (PL 96-104). It imposed new eligibility restric- tions along civic lines, placing bars on minors (who lack the full civic standing of adults) and on noncitizen immigrants (Fix and Zimmerman 2002). The new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program imposed time limits and work requirements as conditions of aid and encouraged states to experiment with ways to assimilate the poor into a life of work and family (Winston 2002). Today, the TANF program is less about income support than about integrating the poor into mainstream institutions and behaviors. Work and marriage, valued by many in their own right, are treated in the program as stepping stones to full, self-sufficient membership in mainstream society (Edin and Kefalas 2005). In what follows, we analyze the TANF program as just such a project of incorporation. On its face, the TANF program is a race-neutral policy that holds all recipients (with limited exceptions) to the same behavioral standards. It is an effort to integrate poor people-regardless of race or ethnicity-into a social order where women, including single mothers, increasingly engage in paid employment (Orloff 2001). In some respects, this is indeed the program's effect. In practice, however, welfare reform also operates in ways that generate civic disparities related to race, ethnicity, and immigrant status. As Joel Handler (2004) explained in his recent book on what he calls the paradox of inclusion, policies that aim to incorporate the poor into mainstream institutions may do so in ways that actually reinforce their status as second-class citizens. We suggest that the TANF program operates in this fashion and that its paradoxes are rooted in the complex landscape of race, ethnicity, and immigration in the contemporary United States. We begin by tracing the historical relationship between U.S. welfare provision and questions of citizenship and race.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Colors of Poverty
Subtitle of host publicationWhy Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages30
ISBN (Print)9780871545398
StatePublished - 2008


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